The Buddha and the Abhidhamma

I am not a great English scholar. But do you mean this?

I wouldn’t worry about it unless you are interested in Abhidhamma, and already have a grounding in the suttas.

Yes, that’s right. Sorry if it’s confusing: it seemed clear to me!


Thank you Bhante.
I think a person should read four Nikayas at least once before they attempt to read Abhidhamma.
I still did not have a chance to read Sutta Abhidhamma.

Ven. Anālayo has a short book and some articles on Abhidhamma that I read and recommend.

Thank you frank for your careful and honest reply and the references.

I personally think, that is fine and even within the scope of tradition. When I remember correctly, we find in the commentarial tradition, that the world will not be empty of Arahants even at a time where merely the Vinaya-Pitaka exists (or certain parts of it) – in a time of degeneration – and where the rest of the tipitaka will have been lost, seemingly then tacitly expressing that the abhidhamma is not absolutely essential in attaining any magga-phala. But I haven’t read it in any source text. A passage from the Vinaya-Pitaka indicates an early delineation as to the inclination to certain fields of learning:

“Look here, do you master suttantas, or verses (gatha), or what is extra to dhamma [abhidhamma] and afterwards you will master discipline”

Horner suggests that the value

of the gathas lay in ‘their appeal to the more emotional type of disciple…
whereas the mastery of abhidhamma would provide a field to attract the more intellectual type, while mastery of suttantas would stir the normally virtuous man of average mental equipment.’

In one or the other sutta we find, as you most likely know, teachings about the principles of association and that these principles ensue a gathering with like-minded folk. So we see the intellectual or particularly wisdom inclined bhikkhus as being drawn into the presence of the ven. Sāriputta, flocking around him. If I am allowed to conjecture, I suppose it might be that you are just of another type and might have been gathered around the ven. Ānanda, if you had been a disciple in those days close to him, or another disciple.

One description of wisdom is the understanding of bright and dark phenomena, as well as of these of mixed nature. Having mastered these abhidhamma teachings one will, I believe, have a very solid and comprehensive understanding of these mentioned differently or equally poled phenomena. I agree that for the most direct liberation you can dispense with all these details, but nevertheless they are of value in attaining a different kind of depth in understanding and reasoning and the range to expound and understand the teachings of the Buddha. The way for example to the paṭisambhidā, the four discriminative knowledges, is a different one than just attaining to vipassanā to directly induce liberation. That is where I would personally see the value, among other things.

Actually I can really relate to that. I saw once a video of an abhidhamma lecture held by a Myanmar teacher and it was dry as it could be, really. Sorry if that sounds disrespectful but that is how I perceived it. I felt no pathos at all, seemingly just monotone repetition. Nevertheless I sometimes felt quite similar while hearing sutta-based teachers, just repetition, mere book knowledge without any deeper deliberations. Also no disrespect to them – it is difficult to give dhamma-talks anyway and so the mentioned impression I got must not necessarily reflect there state of understanding. My point is that you find bad, or personally unappealing teachers on both sides. I find, for example, the ven. Pa Auk Sayadaw in person emotionally very grounded and I had the impression of him as a very knowledgable (I heard he made six rounds to the entire tipitaka(!)) and kind teacher, who is nevertheless a strong advocate of abhidhamma teachings.

I agree with most of what you wrote. As to with what I do not agree: We find occasional prodigies, who are able to grasp such a body of knowledge – I would like to refer here to the example of the ven. Ānanada in the case of the suttas, who is reputed to have had such a remarkable memory, that he was able to grasp the suttas in their entirety. Even at present, I have heard, there are a handful or so of bhikkhus who have a similar grasp of the whole tipitaka. Also it might be possible that in keeping and transmission of the materials there was a sharing in efforts, as it happened also with the suttas, where different chief disciples with their respective bodies of pupils were entrusted to take care of an individual nikāya – ven. Mahā Kassapa and his students for the Sa.myutta Nikāya etc.


Yes, in the suttas we can find also this kind of style, though mostly embedded in some “entertainment”, such as narrative with details of the protagonists etc. Reading the Dīgha Nikāya felt at times like reading a novel (a good and wholesome one for sure), although we find abhidhamma style there.


responding to Venerable

What I’m specifically referring to is the blind belief that:

  1. the Jataka Tales, Theravada Abhidhamma, are the word of the Buddha,
  2. are 100% true, and
  3. that the Jataka Tales, Abhidhamma, and other questionable parts of the Sutta pitaka do not contradict the EBT portion of the suttas at all.

This is especially so among the followers, but as far as I can tell even the teachers, masters, who the devotees consider Ariya, all the way to the top of the hierarchy. Although I’m generally fearless when it comes to directly asking questions I consider of great importance to all the teachers, in this case I found it too awkward to directly ask them, “Do you really hold those 3 positions as true?” Because I knew there are only 4 possible answers and the first 3 are really bad.

The possible outcomes:

  1. They lack discernment, basic reasoning skills, and logic to see that Abhdhamma contradicts EBT on important doctrinal points.
  2. They know the contradictions are there, they know the jataka tales are fiction, but they see that fiction and lies serve a useful practical purpose in keeping the theravada orthodox tradition alive, so they publicly claim everything is true and 100% word of the Buddha, while privately they know the truth but believe they are doing this for the greater good.
  3. They know the contradictions are there, but they want to preserve harmony in the Sangha and they’re quite afraid of the kamma of causing a schism so they mostly stay quiet on the matter and don’t voice their doubts to the teachers or others.
  4. They’re unsure, so won’t really state a clear position on the 3 points, but have faith in their teachers and hope they will understand over time.

I don’t have psychic powers, but I would guess most of the teachers are in category 1. Probably some of the teachers privately have some doubts about some issues, but not enough doubt to shake their dogmatic devotion to the overall orthodox party line that everything in the Te Tipitaka is the genuine 100% word of the Buddha.

If I remember correctly from reading his autobiography, Bhante Gunaratana had a photographic memory as a kid. Ordained as a samanera at age 12, took full ordination at 20, very well versed in Abhidhamma and entire Tipitaka. You can be sure someone from Sri Lanka, immersed and ordained in orthodox theravada tradition, with a photographic memory and sharp intellect has an interesting and worthwhile perspective on this issue.

In this thread, I posted some excerpts showing how his interpretation of jhana changed over 30 years, from an orthodox position to one that is completely consistent to the EBT

Bhante Sujato also wrote a book surveying some of the problematic areas of Abhidhamma, which I read a few years ago, maybe the same as this post in his blog Here:

I’m all for a diverse Buddhist ecosystem to suit personalities and dispositions of all types, so long as it’s stated clearly that it’s a commentary, or not the direct word of the Buddha. The Abhdhamma that evolved in the Mahayana is quite a different Abhidhamma than Te, and is also classified officially as commentary, not word of the Buddha.

I believe in the early days of Te Abhidhamma, they were honest and ethical on keeping things separate. The fact that it has its own pitaka for example. But somewhere along the line they crossed the line, and never looked back.


Dear Frank,
some quotes and comments below.

Might be true, yes, although I personally had the experience that there are more discerning people under category 3, when it comes to contradictions of any kind. The respect for the teacher is immense in traditional countries and even things are upheld, which even everybody knows is actually a straight contradiction.

That it is a mere commentary or otherwise would have to be established more definitely, as I see it – the state of affairs is not easily discerned. One reason for this is, that I often see a certain point explained as at variance with suttanta just to see it harmonized by somebody who is in favor for the a-p – these people with their points need to be studied as thoroughly as views which are skeptical in nature, I believe. If we argue that there are contradictions we need further clarify that it is the abhidhamma which has to mend its ways and not the source we treat as genuine. Also the causes for a potentially really existing contradiction need to be taken into account.

Where is the contradiction to be located, within the commentaries or in the root text?
Is it perhaps due to a corrupted reading?

We find all kinds of strange and foreign elements within the Mahayāna traditions, which is generally another thing in the Theravāda. Buddhaghosa mentioned also a possible classification of the abhidhamma within the Khuddaka-Nikāya, if I remember correctly, did therefore seemingly not treat it as a mere commentary, but drew rather from ancient commentarial material himself in his exegetical compositions (our present commentaries) on the a-p. But if the status quo is due to your research or other reasons settled for you more clearly that we have to accept also … I for one am still inclined to a more favorable assessment of the abhidhamma, but find further investigation warranted.


I’m not an expert in abhidhamma but in my reading of the Manual of abhidhamma by Ven Narada, a few things stand out:

  1. Rupa jhana according to the abhidhamma
    First material (Rupa) jhana contains vitakka, vicara, Piti, sukha, ekaggata
    Second material (Rupa) jhana contains, vicara, Piti, sukha, ekaggata
    Third material (Rupa) jhana contains Piti, sukha, ekaggata
    Fourth material (Rupa) jhana containssukha, ekaggata
    Fifth material (Rupa) jhana contains ekaggata.

The problem with this schedule is that it is derived analytically i.e. the reduction of jhana factors does not happen this way in real life. Vitakka and vicara are both lost when moving from the first jhana to the second jhana according to EBTs. The unnecessary scholarly analysis has resulted in 5 material (Rupa) jhanas, when there are only 4. According to EBTs and from anyone who has attained to the complete set of Rupa jhana, it is known that there exists only 4 Rupa jhana.

There isn’t much practical implication in this, except that the monk(s) who created the abhidhamma felt their standing, scholarship and rivalry with other schools was more important than being faithful to the Buddha’s word- which would have been easily accessible to them. They had to create new teachings beyond the word of the Buddha, to stand out. This puts the intension behind and accuracy of the abhidhamma on a precarious footing.

With metta

1 Like

Technically you can say Vitakka lost first.

Either vitakka and vicara are both lost or only one is lost. One cannot say technically only one is lost and practically and on EBTs both are lost. That’s illogical.

According to Abhidhamma Vitakka and Vicara are two different mind moments. I can understand this. Both Vitakk and Vicara can not exist in the same mind moment. Otherwise, we can’t differentiate the two.
What Abhidhamma has done is to divide Sutta mental states into subtle mind moments.

  1. Supramundane (Lokuttara) jhana.

Such a category of jhana is not mentioned in EBTs. The abhidhamma mentions this apart from the 4 material jhana and 4 immaterial (arupa) attainments.

With metta

One of the contradictions which I care a great deal about is the understanding of jhāna and the factors closely involved with that: kāya (body of flesh and blood or mental factors), V&V (vitakka & vicara), S&S (sati and sampajano), sukha vedana.

I’ve discussed the contradictions and audited the pali and english in other threads, tracing where the contradictions happen from the Ab Vb bojjhanga chapter, Ab Vb jhāna chapter, through the Vimt, commentaries, and Vism. I will also collect all of my detailed audits and compile into one book sometime this year so anyone interested an audit for themselves.

If you compare Bhante Gunaratana’s current interpretation of Jhāna (his book “beyond mindfulness” ) compared to his interpretation 30 years ago in his dissertation when he was still adhering completely to Abhdhamma interpretation, you’ll see it used to be the same as Pa Auk Sayadaw’s interpretation.

Both interpretations can’t be correct. They contradict. Bhante G. clearly decided in the end to side with the EBT.


see AN 8.63 , MN 128 , and I have a thread somewhere recently on the “3 ways of samadhi” with every sutta reference to the 3 types of samadhi.

In fact the existence of this 3fold classification is strong proof that V&V is not samatha kung fu, but instead directed thinking and vicara is evaluation/pondering. Because as you point out, V&V gradually dropping out just doesn’t make any sense if it’s understood as samatha kung fu of mind gluing to a visual nimitta.

In AN 8.63, vitakka in first jhana has the role of selecting an appropriate 4sp topic, for example metta, or breath meditation, or a dhamma passage that deals with removing a hindrance when necessary. Vitakka switching between those topics is why vitakka is “directed thought”, and not just “applied thought”. Vicara has the job of exploring the 4sp topic chosen by vitakka. If it’s metta, vicara might be extending the spatial awareness, directing towards one class of living beings, etc, if it’s breath meditation, vicara could be examining whether the breath feels comfortable or not, hot or cold, etc.

This classification is just to identify the Ariya in Jhana state.

There is no need to accept Sutta classification is the ultimate.
Any person can classify his or her experience to their wishes.

The extract from the book I read.

There are any number of ways we can analyse our experience; there are a potentially infinite number of categories we can invent into which we can classify our experiences. What is important is that we remember the difference between category and experience, and avoid becoming lost in the category. Our tendency is to get lost in the categories, and in doing so, lose touch with experience. When we create a system of categories we freeze the process of living experience and create a solid something in which our experience must now conform. We now divide our experience into two basic divisions: those experiences which we can fit into our system of categories, and which is therefore valid, real and useful; and those experiences which we cannot fit into our system of categories. Of course, in the act of meditating, we put more attention to our valid, real and useful experiences than we do to the other type. In brief, we become stuck in attachment and aversion, and instead of investigating our experience, we revert to manipulating it. We take the practice of freedom and turn it into a prison. This is inevitably the case when we project reality into the categories of analysis - whatever system we use - and not into the actual, living, stream of experience. Hence we must treat this system with great caution. We must learn to use it, and not be used by it.

Another great thing about a discussion about Abhidhamma is that it reminds us not to objectify the experience. People who object to Abhidhamma are the people who objectify experience. If you do not objectify the experience there is no reason to object to some one’s experience. Because of we know that only way you can verbalise experience is by objectification.

But abhidhamma talks about an ‘inherent nature’ (svabhava dhamma) of its categories. This objectifies it more than the suttas do. Where does it ‘remind us not to objectify experience’?

If we use a previously existing category (e.g.: jhana) and create a new category (e.g.: supramundane jhana) then there has to be a reality to it, experientially. For example a man who knows cats, upon seeing a snake for the first time, cannot call it a long cat. That is an invalid category. It is not a cat; it is a snake. Ever since then people will be searching for ‘long cats’ never finding them anywhere. It is true that cats and snakes have certain similarities. Similarly I would say that jhana and moments of attainment have certain similarities according to what I have heard. But to call attainment ‘events’ jhana is mistaken, and also misleading. When there was a vocabulary already used by the Buddha and his disciples it was not necessary to create potentially misleading categories to denote the same objects.

With metta

What I am saying is this discussion help us to learn not to objectify Suttas.

It is just a name. You can call it a long cat or a snake. What matters is what you experience. You experience a snake. That is what matters. Not what you call it.